Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s smile was better than a trophy

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. grimaced briefly, revealing just how tough it is to compete at Darlington Raceway. Add that this was his lone NASCAR start of the year and the challenge was even greater.

“It wasn’t a storybook win or anything like that,” Earnhardt said on pit road after placing sixth (he would be scored fifth after Denny Hamlin’s winning car failed inspection and was disqualified).

But then a smile emerged.

“It just feels good to be competitive,” said Earnhardt, who returns to his regular NBC Sports duties for Sunday’s broadcast of the Southern 500. “It feels good that everybody has a smile on their face.”

He then shared a story about the weekend, one of many that made this a special time to him. Earnhardt talked about working with his cousin, Danny Earnhardt, as his car chief this weekend.

“He (told) me during practice, “Man, it would be cool if me and you could race together every single week,” Earnhardt said as his smile widened.

So, while it wasn’t a win, Saturday’s Xfinity race still was something Earnhardt could walk away from feeling good.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races under Chase Briscoe during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He’s already said he would like to run in the Xfinity race next March at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of his final Cup start in 2017 — if Hellmann’s exercises the option on its contract to sponsor him in a race next year.

But even beyond that, how much longer can Earnhardt go running one national series race a year and remain competitive?

“I picked the hardest track,” Earnhardt said after wiping his brow.

“So maybe if I go someplace a little easier, I can do it a few more years. It’s really however long Hellmann’s want to do it. I don’t want to do more than one a year. I don’t think I do. I’ll do one a year until I’m wasting my time and everybody else’s. I feel like I did a good job today and I didn’t really feel like I wasted my team’s time. As long as I don’t feel like I don’t belong in there, I’ll keep doing it.”

The fans appreciated his effort, giving him the loudest cheers before and after the race.

“He’s the people’s champ,” Hamlin said. “I think a lot of Dale and Amy. I’m glad he still gets to play and have fun. I’d imagine if I had a race team, I’d want to do the same thing. I don’t know if I would choose Darlington if I was him, it’s a tough track. Goodness, it’s a big test. He ran fine out there. All the restarts, it didn’t look like he was timid at all on any of them. So, hopefully, he continues to run one or two here and there.”

Even for as challenging as Darlington was, Earnhardt enjoyed his day because he ran well. 

Earnhardt was reunited with longtime spotter T.J. Majors and after Earnhardt finished seventh in stage two, Majors asked his driver if he was having fun.

Earnhardt replied with an enthusiastic “Yeah, I’m having fun.”

This wasn’t a joyride, though. He spent part of his day racing Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe for position. After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt noted they could have used more grip before thanking his team for its effort.

For all the fun. realization hit Earnhardt.

“About halfway through the race, I was starting to remember all the reasons why I don’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s hot. It’s hard. It’s hard.

“What I’m really reminded of when I get to do these races is just how much we ought to respect the drivers that do it every single week because it is so hard. Not just driving the race but all the grind throughout the week, testing, debriefs, the study, watching races and film, there’s so much to it and it starts to pop in my head and I remember why I’m glad I’m not in that grind anymore. But just going practicing, qualifying and running the race, that’s fun.”

And then Earnhardt grinned.

While there was no trophy to take home, that smile showed what Saturday meant to Earnhardt.